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NGI Recipient: Rebekah Valencia

Session Attended: Country Dance and Song Society - English Week (2018)

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Those are the primary and most important words I can say. I just completed my first week at Pinewoods, and the experience was even more than I had dreamed.

Have you ever done something where you had no idea what to expect? That experience where whatever lies in front of you is completely unknown, but you know that in a few days…hours…minutes…it will be your new “normal”? You can’t quite imagine what it’ll be like, so you begin to wonder – to doubt – that maybe, the reason this is beyond my imagination is that I’m never even going to make it there. It’s not a lingering thought. Perhaps a better word is “anticipation.”

I travelled with some friends and danced at the airport with them while we waited for our luggage and our van. People loved it, and we took a little time to advertise for Pinewoods and CDSS. When we arrived at camp, I was shown to my cabin by an excellent greeter and awaited the first dance. I was happily surprised that there was a Contra dance mixed in with the English. It’s a nice change of pace, and adds an extra measure of fun and energy to the evening dance.

The classes I took were “Elephants and Related Species” taught by Andrew Shaw (Advanced English Country Dance), “Sleights” taught by Kalia Kliban (Longsword Dance), “Music Made Visible” taught by Gene Murrow (Dances to different key signatures), “Rip and Snort” taught by Kalia Kliban (Contras), and “Johnson, Thompson & Co.” taught by Andrew Shaw (Old English Country Dances). I attended every period every day, in addition to every evening dance and most of the nighttime camper-led activities. I took a journal and added to it several times each day with thoughts about the classes, dances I enjoyed, or notes about the experience in general.

My takeaways from the “Elephants” class were mostly about calling. I noticed as the week went on that Andrew would get rather grumpy sometimes. If it is a technique to be “grumpy” or demanding of your dancers, I think the goal is to improve each person as a dancer. To that end, I believe the class was over all successful. From a conversation I had with Andrew later in the week, he aims to entertain in addition to teaching dances, and that is something extra he gives to those on the dance floor. Maybe what I interpreted as “grumpiness” was merely his form of humor. What I need to do with this information is determine how, as a caller, I can bring that extra element to the dance floor. What can I do to provide a positive experience beyond just teaching dances?

The Longsword class was my first exposure to sword dancing at all. Unfortunately, this class was scheduled across from Open Mic, meaning I did not get to practice calling or get feedback in that direction. However, my local mentors who were at camp strongly encouraged me to do Longsword so I could bring that experience back to the dance community in Oklahoma.

Obviously, I learned a whole new form of dance, but I also learned a lot about working in a team. My team was often so focused on doing everything the fastest that they lost sight of learning the technique or finesse that was the intent of the exercise. This was frustrating to me – especially at first – until the team learned to work better together. Once we all agreed on what element we needed to focus on, we performed better as a team and learned more quickly. Kalia was a patient and adaptable instructor, anticipating our needs, answering our questions, and offering helpful advice throughout. Most notable is her joy and enthusiasm at participating and teaching and helping all of us learn. Although I am sad to have missed Open Mic, I certainly do not regret spending my time learning Longsword Dance.

After lunch, the first class was “Music Made Visible.” I didn’t know what to expect out of this class other than beautiful dances that fit the music very well. It turns out I learned a lot about music and timing from this class. I have been calling both English and Contra dances for about a year and a half, and I had not learned the difference between jigs and reels. Day 1 of this class, and I was already a better caller because of the knowledge Gene brought to the class. He would explain what a jig is and follow up the explanation with a dance that is done to a jig. Through the week we did jigs, reels, double jigs, hornpipe, minuet, waltz, slip jig, and “none of the above.” One of the days was dedicated to different types or qualities of the jig. As someone who grew up around music, I was impressed that there was still so much to learn about music that had the potential to make me a better caller and dancer. Gene’s gentle demeanor and simple explanations made the class a joy.

The Contra class was rather small. My assumption is that most of the campers a) were too hot and sticky to do Contra and b) wanted to attend “For those who want to know” scheduled across from it. We may have had a small crowd, but it was by far the most energetic and fun class of the day. I’ve never done so much role-swapping, flourishing, and laughing at any Contra dance! It was goofy, rowdy, entertaining fun every day. Because it was a smaller group, we got to know each other very well. Kalia is probably my favorite caller to dance to or learn from. We had a small class. She adapted. The dancers decided to play with gender-swapping, flourishing, and general goofiness. She thoroughly enjoyed watching us. During one dance in particular, there was out-of-set movement and everything fell to pieces. Everyone was laughing as Kalia pulled it back together saying “find your partner and swing!” and the dance kept going. At the point where the set was a mess and I was waiting out at the top watching and listening, I turned to my partner for the dance and said, “THIS is what dancing is all about.”

The final class, which I referred to as “Old Dances” was a nice cool down session at the end of the afternoon. The dances weren’t too difficult, yet there was a nice quality to them where anyone can do the dances, but if you learn the techniques, the dance becomes that much better. This was a great class for repertoire building. I noticed that Andrew and Gene don’t call off of cards. They know the dances. A whole week’s worth of dances…for 1-2 class periods in addition to evening dances!

Speaking of evening dances, this was the time to gather and enjoy and to put skills from the day to practical use. I participated in both “For those who know” dances on the first and last days, and I did one or two others throughout the week, but I found the experience to be more stressful than enjoyable when I danced. I found it much more fun to listen and watched as “those who know” danced to the music.

I took pictures of all the evening programs for repertoire-building purposes, and I journaled about the dances I particularly liked. I had the absolute best set for Fandango on Camper’s Night, making that my favorite dance of the week – which is saying something because I was nervous about that one coming in. Sunday night, Gene called my only dance that I’ve written – to my mom’s tune “Dance With Me.” I got such excellent feedback from other campers all week about how beautiful the dance is. I am already figuring out how to write more dances to some of my mom’s tunes. On Camper’s Night, I called “All Saints’ (Day)” for the group. It was important to me that I sign up to call since I hadn’t been attending Open Mic. It seemed to go well, and I got positive feedback about my performance.

Outside of regular activities, I attended night dances – ceilidh dancing, Irish set dance, and French dance. I was even an organizer for the Irish sets. I went to every Gathering in the mornings, listened to the auction, and sat on the docks to chat with people. One of the most amazing things about camp is that anywhere you go, there is music as though the trees are singing to you. Beautiful music all around. It is soul-cleansing.

I cannot say enough positive things about my first experience at camp. I learned so much and have come back home a better dancer as well as a better caller. I have expanded my dance family and am already making plans to figure out how to return next year.

So I will leave you the same way I began – thank you. You have truly inspired me and encouraged me through your investment, and I am ever grateful. I take your generosity very seriously and intend to put it to good use for years to come.